Tag Archives: Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

On a sad note, it appears that Charles Krauthammer, a frequent object of our criticism here, has but weeks to live. In his final column, he notes:

Lastly, I thank my colleagues, my readers, and my viewers, who have made my career possible and given consequence to my life’s work. I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.

Best wishes to him, his family, and friends.


Play their game

Fig. 1: Scientist

From Eric Alterman at the Nation:

A week before his 2009 inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama chose as his first high-profile social engagement a dinner party at George Will’s house, where he was joined by William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. Obama no doubt intended to demonstrate his desire to reach across the ideological divide and engage his neoconservative critics in a healthy debate. Conservatives saw a president they could roll.

I remember that meeting distinctly.  A few paragraphs later:

The primary difference between liberalism and conservatism, at least in theory, is that the latter is an ideology and the former isn’t. Conservatism, as Milton Friedman argued, posits that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” Liberalism, however, as Lionel Trilling observed, “is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” And while John Kenneth Galbraith helpfully pointed out that only those programs and policies that honor “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of the term, liberalism, at bottom, is pragmatism. Conservatives desire low taxes and small government because this is how they define freedom. They like to pretend that liberals prefer the opposite in both cases, but the truth is that liberals are OK with whatever works.

Though I’m not a fan of these dinner-party distinctions between liberals and conservatives, my own contribution would be this: the conservatives here described (the ones who met Obama in 2008) engage in a type of discourse liberals do not engage in.  I used to think that liberals should learn how to play their game.  Now I’m not so sure.


Anyway, just for fun, here’s Alterman’s reductio of George Will:

Will, undoubtedly America’s most prominent conservative intellectual, thinks that rape victims enjoy their “privileges,” that Ebola can be spread through the air, and that global warming is a hoax. Faced with the fact that 97 percent of climatologists have formed a scientific consensus about man-made climate change, he responded, “Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether”—as if his own purposeful ignorance were a counter to empirical data.

Like I say, I’m not so sure one should learn how to play that game.

Tortured logic

We’ve been out of commission for a while with our day jobs.  Now that vacation is almost here, let’s try to get back in the swing of things.

First, an assignment: let’s everyone think about torture–namely, the tortured arguments for it.  My favorite is the one that it’s not torture if we practice it on our own personnel.  So, for instance, if we demonstrate water torture boarding to someone, as an example of torture, it’s ipso fatso not torture, because we did it.  For, after all, anything we do cannot be torture, duh.

Here it is:

KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.

I reread this a bunch of times (then and again now), thinking I had to have misinterpreted Krauthammer.  I don’t think I have.  Water torture isn’t torture because we use it on our own soldiers to demonstrate torture.

In case one thinks that this is a one-off argument uttered in haste, here’s former CIA chief Michael Hayden yesterday:

“It prompts the anti-drowning reflex in an individual. I’m sure it’s horrible, but it was also horrible for tens of thousands of American airmen whom we used it against for their training.”

So, assignment time, what’s your favorite WTF argument for torture?  There should be some kind of chart–oh, there is!

Here’s the torture report for reference.

The argument from ceded authority

Arguments from authority are typically third-person arguments: X says that p, so p is probably true.  Saying, I say that p, I have qualifications q, so listen up, is less common.  When you make an argument as an authority, you still cite reasons, they’re just reasons lay people don’t get.

Now comes Charles Krauthammer, quondam psychiatrist, who offers another twist on the argument from authority: the argument from ceded authority.  It works like this: I have qualifications q, but I’m not going to invoke them because they would prohibit me from saying p, so I cede this authority, and assert that p.  Here it is via TPM:

“So I decided when I left psychiatry never to use my authority. But let me just say as a layman, without invoking any expertise, Obama is clearly a narcissist in the non-scientific use of the word,” Krauthammer said during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” “He is so self-involved, you see it from his rise.”

I’m pretty sure that expertise is not the kind of thing you can just put aside, as you would if you were a pro tennis player playing an amateur.  That expertise, once earned, pretty much stays.  So Krauthammer has offered an interesting variation on the age-old “I’m not a doctor. . . ” it’s “I’m a doctor, but I don’t play one on TV.”

Maybe you’re the problem


In their recent book (and in their TV appearances!), Why We Argue, Scott and Rob make the case for vigorous, meaningful, and competent public argument.  The competence part of this is the most obvious.  Logic texts have long made the case for this, taking a “skills” approach to the subject–learn to reason well, and you will reason well.

Well, that’s not the case.  Smart Harvard types have long been the most vigorous practitioners of the fine art of sophistry (for evidence, see anyone of our 1500 or so posts here).  The problem with these guys isn’t the lack of vigor, they’ve got lots of that.  The problem is the “meaningful” part.  They don’t, or can’t possibly, mean what they say.  They’re hacks.

A fundamental presupposition to productive argumentation, after all, is that the other person arguing means what she says.  Hacks do not mean what they say.  They take the party line whether it’s the best available view or not.  So I find it disturbing to read this post by Jonathan Bernstein, defending them.  His main reasons:

I think Chait is talking about something like a “public intellectual” model, and what I’d say is that there’s also room for a lawyer model. For a lawyer-model pundit, it doesn’t matter so much if she said the exact opposite thing five years ago, but it still matters a lot if she gets her facts right and makes well-reasoned, well-informed, arguments.

I guess the question is whether there’s really any need for lawyer-style commentators, given that it’s the professional responsibility of many politicians to essentially do that. I’d say: sure. Commentators, as opposed to politicians or their staff, are relatively free to make the argument properly, without having to worry about the political fallout from the various speed traps and potholes that politicians have to shy away from — or from winning daily spin wars.

The hack, by definition, is not making the “argument properly.”  Part of making the argument properly is believing what you say.  The lawyer doesn’t have to believe what she says because there’s a judge, a jury, a process for evaluating (and restricting) their utterances.  Hacks throw themselves into a game claiming to be something they’re not.  This, I think, is fundamentally destructive to argumentation.

To be fair, this is pretty much how Bernstein concludes:

Granted, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to identify himself as a lawyer-style commentator. And yes, one tip-off that Krauthammer isn’t worth bothering with is his extreme certainty that he’s correct, even as (as Chait notes) he flips from one side to another of an issue based on partisan tides. But overall, there’s probably a lot more room for good lawyer-style pundits than Chait thinks.

Granted indeed, and good example!  But that’s really the entirety of Bernstein’s case.

The force of reasons

Fig 1: violence

We begin with a tale of inconsistency, borrowing (pretty much completely) from Atrios:

Krauthammer. [2005, when Republicans held a narrow majority in the Senate]

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist seems intent on passing a procedural ruling to prevent judicial filibusters.

The Democrats have unilaterally shattered one of the longest-running traditions in parliamentary history worldwide. They are not to be rewarded with a deal. They must either stop or be stopped by a simple change of Senate procedure that would do nothing more than take a 200-year-old unwritten rule and make it written.

What the Democrats have done is radical. What Frist is proposing is a restoration.

versus Krauthammer. [2013, when Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate]

The violence to political norms here consisted in how that change was executed. By brute force — a near party-line vote of 52 to 48 . This was a disgraceful violation of more than two centuries of precedent. If a bare majority can change the fundamental rules that govern an institution, then there are no rules. Senate rules today are whatever the majority decides they are that morning.

These two views are hugely inconsistent, of course.

What is even more ridiculous, however, is how Krauthammer characterizes a losing vote: “violence,” “brute force.”  Er, no.  It’s the opposite of that.

Furthermore, just because you can change rules (even allegedly longstanding ones) does not imply there are no rules.  For, after all, there is a rule that says how rules are changed.  That rule, at least, stays in place.

Ponzi inception

In the movie "Inception," Leonardo di Caprio led a gang of mind-soldiers who, with the help of explosions, torture, and snowmobiles, planted ideas in people's heads.  IRL, in real life for the uninitiated, those people are pundits, who repeat stuff that's nuts, in hopes it will catch people unawares and find fertile ground in the public consciousness. 

Among the many examples of this sort of dishonest activity is the claim that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme."  For those who haven't paid attention, the argument goes something like this.  Way back, a guy named Ponzi claimed to have an investment fund that paid rich dividends.  It sort of did, but it wasn't an investment fund.  He took money from new investors to pay off the old one, all the while not actually investing anyone's money. 

By contrast, Social Security is a "pay as you go" plan.  People working now pay for the people retired now.  This has led people to claim that it is a "Ponzi scheme."  Such a claim is obviously ludicrous.  Two obvious reasons.  First, the Ponzi scheme was a swindle perpetrated on investors by Ponzi, not a transparent system of social insurance and retirement; second, the Ponzi scheme was illegal, and not the purposefully-designed plan of a duly-elected representative body. 

These two key differences (explained here with lots of references) escape the subtle mind of Charles Krauthammer, who redefines, or tries to redefine, the illegality and fraud out of the phrase "Ponzi Scheme." 

The Great Social Security Debate, Proposition 1: Of course it's a Ponzi scheme.

In a Ponzi scheme, the people who invest early get their money out with dividends. But these dividends don't come from any profitable or productive activity — they consist entirely of money paid in by later participants.

This cannot go on forever because at some point there just aren't enough new investors to support the earlier entrants. Word gets around that there are no profits, just money transferred from new to old. The merry-go-round stops, the scheme collapses and the remaining investors lose everything.

Now Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program. A current beneficiary isn't receiving the money she paid in years ago. That money is gone. It went to her parents' Social Security check. The money in her check is coming from her son's FICA tax today — i.e., her "investment" was paid out years ago to earlier entrants in the system and her current benefits are coming from the "investment" of the new entrants into the system. "Pay-as-you-go" is the definition of a Ponzi scheme.

So what's the difference? Ponzi schemes are illegal, suggested one of my colleagues on "Inside Washington."

But this is perfectly irrelevant. Imagine that Charles Ponzi had lived not in Boston but in the lesser parts of Papua New Guinea, where the securities and fraud laws were, shall we say, less developed. He runs his same scheme among the locals — give me ("invest") one goat today, I'll give ("return") you two after six full moons — but escapes any legal sanction. Is his legal enterprise any less a Ponzi scheme? Of course not.

So what is the difference?

It's the fraud, of which illegality is a consequence, that makes something a "Ponzi scheme."  A Ponzi scheme and Social Security may involve some of the same methods, but so does check fraud–they both involve writing checks. 

I don’t usually practice psychiatry in my blog

If there is a logic to the arguments of politicians, I don’t know what it is.  A vote for a politician involves a complex web of commitments whose primary objective is action, not belief.  So when politicians violate the rules of argumentative propriety, it’s hard to complain too much.  You know their ads are going to go ad hominem, too often egregriously so, when they’re not distorting the record, or otherwise strawmanning, hollow manning, or weak manning their opponents.

Columnists in the newspaper, on the other hand, play a different kind of game.  Well some of them do.  They advance reasons for believing proposition x or proposition y.  We can, I think, hold them to a higher standard.

So for instance, today George Will  argues that Democrats are desperate in the face of the march of obviously moderate, reasonable, non masterbating Tea Party candidates.  His argument is bad.  Here’s how it goes:

P1.  The Democrats have accomplished nothing that people like;

P2.  They have plans for more stuff people don’t like;

C.  Therefore they now wrongly characterize grass roots, very reasonable, centrist small-government people as “extremists.”

Just for the record, I think P1 is very questionable, and a partisan operator such as Will ought to offer better evidence (he doesn’t offer any).  P2 is weak for the same reason.  Now if those premises were true, which they aren’t, maybe that conclusion would follow.  But the conclusion is false anyway–because the candidates in question stand far from the center of American politics.  That is not to say they’re wrong.  It’s just to say they are not unfairly criticized as on an extreme.  Time to take that word back extremists.  Embrace it.

Now Will moves to a more serious objective: a logical critique of Democrats in general:

Democrats, unable to run on their policies, will try to demonize the opponents with Tea Party support as unstable extremists with personality disorders. They have ridden this hobby horse before.

As I argued above, this is a vacuous critique.  But it’s hilarious, because it’s an attempt at logic criticism–and Will sucks at this.  Here’s how is argument goes for that conclusion:

In response to a questionnaire from a magazine, 1,189 psychiatrists, none of whom had ever met Goldwater, declared him unfit for office — “emotionally unstable,” “immature,” “cowardly,” “grossly psychotic,” “paranoid,” “chronic schizophrenic” and “dangerous lunatic” were some judgments from the psychiatrists who believed that extremism in pursuit of Goldwater was no vice. Shortly before the election, Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter published in Harper’s an essay (later expanded into a book with the same title), “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that encouraged the idea that Goldwater’s kind of conservatism was a mental disorder.

On the eve of the convention that nominated Goldwater, Daniel Schorr of CBS, “reporting” from Germany, said: “It looks as though Sen. Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign here in Bavaria, center of Germany’s right wing” and “Hitler’s one-time stomping ground.”

Goldwater, said Schorr, would be vacationing near Hitler’s villa at Berchtesgaden. Schorr further noted that Goldwater had given an interview to Der Spiegel “appealing to right-wing elements in Germany” and had agreed to speak to a gathering of “right-wing Germans.” So, “there are signs that the American and German right wings are joining up.”

But as Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has reported, although Goldwater had spoken vaguely about a European vacation (he did not take one), he had not mentioned Germany, and there were no plans to address any German group. Der Spiegel had reprinted an interview that had appeared elsewhere.

The relevance of this for 2010? There is precedent for the mainstream media being megaphones for Democratic-manufactured hysteria.

Nonsense.  Let’s reconstruct this.

P1. A bunch of psychiatrists thought Barry Goldwater was crazy in 1964.

P2. Richard Hofttadter wrote the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

P3.  A reporter for CBS (recently deceased) is alleged to have slandered Goldwater.

C.  Therefore, the Democrats “have ridden this hobby horse before.”

Gee, he doesn’t even really try here.  It just doesn’t follow that the “Democrats” have done any of this–various unrelated people have.  But anyway, Charles Krauthammer, a non anonymous psychiatrist who shares the Post’s op-ed page with George Will, said the following of candidate Al Gore:

KRAUTHAMMER: Crying for help, you know. (LAUGHTER) I’m a psychiatrist. I don’t usually practice on camera. But this is the edge of looniness, this idea that there’s a vast conspiracy, it sits in a building, it emanates, it has these tentacles, is really at the edge. He could use a little help.

He does that all of the time and he sits in the cubicle next to Will at the Post.  And he’s not a Democrat.

And here’s the introduction to Hoftstadter’s piece in the Atlantic:
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Gee, How many Republicans have doubted whether Obama is an American citizen?  A Christian non-terrorist?  Pro-American?  A gay Nazi Muslim?
But this just underscores the blind ignorance WIll must suppose his readers to live in.  How often does one hear on Fox News and other similar outlets (and Tea Party rallies) analogies between begnign Democratic policies and Nazism?  Very often (I wonder, should one ever answer a rhetorical question?  Probably not).

Pile on

The other day I talked about this weak and hollow man rich column by Charles Krauthammer.  But there was way more about that column that an attentive undergraduate could have criticized.  Here's another tidbit.  He wrote:

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than "violent extremists" of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

So fine two thirds of the population are against the Ground Zero community center.  What else have two thirds of the people been against?  I wonder.  Let's go back in time:

The reponse?

The "smug attribution of bigotry" to 82 percent of the people.

Letters to the editor

A post or two ago I made the claim that columnists and arguers in general ought to have some lattitude in defining their opponent's argument(s).  One only has 750 or so words, so one can't possibly be expected to provide thorough references.  

The breadth of this lattitude, however, ought to be determined by reality.  This means one ought to use the means available to pin the argument to an actual person or institution whose view is under discussion.  In the days of linkage, this is not very hard: online versions of columns can and often do have links.  When you say something about some person x's view, you can write it as a link ot the place where that person says what you say she says.  Once we have these, then we can discuss the degree to which they are representative of the opposition's case.   

The weird thing about this is that you'd also think in the days of linkage the readers' demands for such precision would increase, not decrease.  I don't have empirical data on this, but I think it's decreased.

Fortunately, an alert reader of the Post noticed just this about Charles Krauthammer's most recent hollow and weak men:

In his Aug. 27 column, Charles Krauthammer offered negative generalizations and accusations about "liberals" — referring to their "promiscuous charges of bigotry" and saying that they give "no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument" and resort "reflexively to the cheapest race baiting," without citing as an example one statement from any so-called liberal person or organization. Surely with liberals running amok and using such baseless and terrible rhetoric, he could have cited a few examples to better make his case.

He stated also that liberals have lost the debate on every issue he cited in the court of public opinion by often lopsided margins, without citing any polling data. My reading of the polls on the issues he listed is that public opinion is much more nuanced than he acknowledged.

By his polemical, over-the-top attack on liberals in general, Mr. Krauthammer practiced what he condemned — giving no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument.

Hurray for this reader.  The reader makes another very important observation at the end.  Columnists–right wing ones especially–work dialectically.  They're allegedly trying to convince the unconvinced.  But then again, maybe they're not and maybe that's the entire problem.